E.J. Johnson: Faulty reasoning behind museum's new vision

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ADAMS — Supporters of the planned sale of all the most valuable works of art in the Berkshire Museum collection see it as an important step into the future direction of the museum and the county. The premise, I fear, is false. It is an irresponsible step backwards into an ill-defined future.

Neither the director nor the head of the museum board has been able to make clear precisely what is to be done with the proceeds of the sale. It is time to examine what little we know of their plans.

Of the proceeds of the sale, $20 million is to be spent on reconstructing the center of the museum building. We have seen a photo of a model of the new central space and a rendering of a possible installation, but little else. I know something about contemporary museum architecture, having taught courses on that subject and visited a large number of the most important new museums in Europe and North America to study them. The plans don't measure up to the competition.

What is proposed is an enormous, empty, off-putting cube of no architectural interest that will make visitors feel small. What is suggested to go in it is a type of jazzy installation that would have looked new 50 years ago, since it's a knock-off of the work of the radical British group, Archigram, active in the 1960s. Now it's old hat, not a vision of tomorrow. Indeed, there is no new vision here, nothing to attract visitors to Pittsfield or Berkshire County, nothing to get excited about. Twenty million for that?

Also outmoded is the thinking behind selling the art in order to turn the institution into a science museum. The thinking is based on a false conception of art and science as mutually exclusive pursuits. When modern science came into being in the 15th and 16th centuries, the two practices went hand in hand. The work of Leonardo da Vinci exemplifies the fusion of the disciplines. In the 17th century some artists turned away from science toward a more expressive kind of art. But hardly all.

Link is observation

What unites art and science is that both are based on observation: note the careful observation of objects in the Berkshire Museum's Shuffleton's Barber Shop by Norman Rockwell. Colleagues of mine in the sciences agree with this point, and this connection is more and more frequently acknowledged.

Former students who have gone into medical practice tell me that undergraduate art history courses were of more use to them professionally than some intro science courses. To similar ends, medical schools are now requiring their students to take art history to enhance their powers of observation. I recently observed a brilliant cardiac specialist examine a patient with the same intensity that an expert on paintings might summon when trying to decide if a picture is a fake. Both depend on observation informed by knowledge.

Columbia University has just opened the first buildings of its new, cutting-edge science campus on Roosevelt Island in New York. Inside are works of art commissioned specifically to promote the connections between art and science. This is the new direction in which the Berkshire Museum could become a leading institution, rather than fall back on discredited, false distinctions. It already has the art on which to base such a step.

The financial arguments on behalf of the sale have been proven false by highly competent economists. The track record of the director, laid out in a brilliant piece of journalism in The Eagle, offers no reason for confidence in his abilities to move the museum forward. So far we have seen no evidence that members of the board are actually equipped to make a knowledgeable, carefully reasoned decision about changing the mission of the museum. One can't help but wonder if they know what they are doing. The contempt with which they have treated anyone who has questioned their decision loudly speaks to their defensiveness.

This is not a plea to return to mythical "better times" in the Berkshires. This is a plea to actually use the resources of the museum to move it forward in an exciting new direction. Not to sell its art collection to finance extravagant, ill-conceived changes, but to employ the art as a catalyst for a truly innovative institution.

Perhaps, in the end, all the uproar over the proposed sale might make us all more aware of the importance of the museum and lead to a solution we could all support.

E. J. Johnson is the Amos Lawrence Professor of Art, emeritus, at Williams College.


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